I Learned My Manners In Thailand

There’s a lot about working 3-4 jobs alongside my writing that’s exhausting, but there are also sometimes some beautiful synchronicities between those jobs, even expressions of the best of our humanity. Here’s the story of a representative week this fall.

American Monday

I’ve been teaching Arabic for several years at Fluent City. I refer with great fondness to this company, initially based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as a hipster after-work language school for mid-career adults. (I really like hipsters, imperfect and complicated though they are.)

The company website is clearly aimed at young people interested in international travel, but my students represent a wide variety of backgrounds and motivations. Two years ago, I saw my biggest class in the wake of the JFK Airport protests against the first Muslim Travel Ban, which filled my classroom with immigration lawyers, the employees and friends of immigration lawyers, refugee resettlement caseworkers, and public school teachers.

This past year, I’ve seen an uptick in heritage speakers, those whose parents are Arab and know a little (often actually a lot more than they think) of the language, but may have never really tried to speak it. And I continue to see students who are learning Arabic for love — because their partner (and an above-average proportion of these students have same-sex partners) is Arab and they’d like to be able to speak to their mother-in-law.

The class I’m teaching now, though, includes three students taking Arabic so that they can better communicate with refugees when they return to Lesvos, Greece, or in Turkey later this year. I both admire and envy them that they have found a way to do this direct work with refugees abroad, and I’m proud to be able to support them.

Refugee Wednesday

Of course, over the last six months, I’ve had my own opportunity to provide direct support to refugees.

This is my passion job. Twenty years ago, I decided I would pursue a career that helped refugees, and I’ve finally pulled it off. In a very part-time gig with the International Rescue Committee, I’ve been teaching vocational English to newly-arrived refugees from around the world, preparing them to work in the hospitality industry — primarily in hotels and food service. It’s a great program, in part for the flexibility it gives me to meet clients where they are.

“You mean,” I heard one client say to another, “I could get $11/hr to do what I already do for my husband?”

For those with little English, there are dishwashing and housekeeping jobs, and especially in hotels, we know that any job will come with detailed, specific training in the company’s in-house methods. For cohorts of clients with higher levels of English, like my most recent cohort, we focus on customer service language, and strategies for dealing with customer complaints.

On one particular recent Wednesday, we were talking about things you shouldn’t say to customers (“I don’t know” or “That’s your problem” — my interpreter offered, “That’s what all my customer service experiences in France have been like!”)

One stand-out student has 5 years of retail experience managing a shop in Thailand. As we were filling out job histories on a sample hotel application, she explained that she had done sales, the register, the accounting, opening and closing, ordering and stocking…. “Basically, I did everything, and at the end of the month, I gave the owner his money.” She’s at least a decade younger than me. I’m pretty much in awe of her, as I am of many of these extraordinary survivors.

Some of my favorite moments in this job are when I have an opportunity to sit at the long tables for a few minutes with my clients and ask, “Is this like your country, or is the American way new to you?”

“Oh, no!” said the refugee via Thailand. “Not in my country! I learned my manners in Thailand. Everything I know about customer service I learned there.”

Over her shoulder, her mother is nodding enthusiastically, pointing at her daughter. I don’t need the interpreter to know she’s both agreeing and extremely proud.

“In Thailand, they are so polite and kind, very helpful. Even if they don’t know the answer, they’ll smile and bow and try to help you.”

I couldn’t help but think about my Thai friend Bow, her wide smile, her delicate, fluttering hands and frequent small bows, her delicate voice and gentle manners.

Immigrant Friday

I spend Fridays and Saturdays with immigrants to New York City teaching an ESL intensive course: 18 instructional hours over two days. It’s a marathon that is punishing in some ways, but I never seem to notice how hungry I am and how much my feet hurt till the end of the day, because I enjoy my students so much.

I’m teaching advanced students in a Business English class. Some are nannies, most are here on student visas, and a smattering of other immigrants, many with very insightful observations about America and the world. At the end of our very long day, I often devote most of the last hour to an open discussion about how or whether the things we’ve been learning are different from students’ home countries. As with the refugees, this is usually my favorite part of the class.

This semester, it happens that I have a lot of Thai students in my class. On Friday, in a lesson on the topic of complaining about your cable bill that evolved into a conversation about customer service more generally, I just had to tell my class, especially the Thai immigrants, what my client had said about the Thai people.

“Do you think that’s true?” I asked. “Are the Thai people especially polite?”

I usually try to emphasize in my classes the danger of making generalizations, especially about each other’s cultures, but my students agreed that it was true. In Thai culture, they said, you must always help. Even when you don’t know the answer, you might give your best guess rather than admit you don’t know.

From across the room, another Thai student chimed in:

“It’s a problem, actually, for us. We can’t say no. Even sometimes when we should say no, we try to do everything just because we’re taught to say yes to everything. We could learn something from Americans about how to say no, how to protect yourself from doing too much.”

These are the things you gain by living abroad. You learn that the way you live, the culture you’ve been immersed in all your life, is not the only way. Sometimes you can find a new balance between the customs and traditions of home and abroad that make you a better, more successful, more well-rounded person.

Sunday Reflections

Rotary Youth Exchange and the Peace Corps both taught me that I have a duty to bring the lessons I’ve learned in other countries back to my neighbors here in the United States. There are many different ways to fulfill this “third goal” — this blog is one of them, my continuing publications, essay collection and memoir-in-progress another.

Likewise, I feel a strong compulsion to share what I’ve learned from my refugee clients and immigrant students with Americans who might not have or understand their experiences.

So, on a recent Sunday, I wrapped up my week by continuing a train of thought first inspired by teaching about Thanksgiving to a room full of brand new immigrants of color. It wasn’t an easy conversation to start with a room full of near-strangers, but sometimes hard truths are more important than good manners.

P.S. On our last day together, I took my refugee class on a tour of a local hotel. By the end of the afternoon, the young woman who had arrived via Thailand had a job offer.

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